King Ali of Iran: How does a Rebel Become a Sultan?

Published by IranWire

It is the late 1960s and the world is mired in revolt. In the holy city of Mashhad, not far from the shrine of Imam Reza, the only Shia Imam buried in Iran, a young revolutionary is holding court in his house. The clerical garb he dons could be misleading, for he is nothing like your average Shia cleric. While the clerical establishment is engulfed in an obscure world of pedantic Islamic argumentation, this young rebel’s life is very much akin to that of his fellow revolutionaries in the Middle East. He smokes like a chimney as he discusses revolution, capitalism and tyranny with a motley crew of Marxists and Islamic socialists, poets and intellectuals. They might discuss a Russian novel or the hanging in Egypt of the young Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist theorist whose works our young revolutionary has translated into Persian. What they all share is a hatred for the hereditary monarchies of the Middle East, be it in their native Iran, the conservative Saudi Arabia, West-aligned Jordan and Morocco or in Libya, whose native son Muammar Gaddafi is still a young military cadet in Britain, walking around Piccadilly donning his traditional Libyan robes as a sign of anti-colonial pride.

If you told the young cleric-revolutionary, whose name is Ali Khamenei, that in a few decades, he’d be subject to hatred by the rebels of the next generation, people who will revile him just like he reviled those monarchs, he might not believe you.

But on Thursday, August 3, as Ayatollah Khamenei held court in a religious center attached to his official residence to sign the official order that confirms the presidency of the elected Hassan Rouhani, he might have paused for a moment. Wasn’t the scene — the audience of mostly aged clerics and statesmen kowtowing to the Supreme Leader in his palace — reminiscent of the regal receptions of the much-hated Mohammad Reza Shah, where the prime minister and the cabinet took turns bowing to the monarch and kissing his hand?


What do the Two Ceremonies Say About the Islamic Republic? 

The Iranian president, the highest elected official in the Islamic Republic, must go through two ceremonies to inaugurate his office, symbolizing the contradictions within the Islamic Republic itself. First comes the tanfiz, or the investiture ceremony, usually held at the residence of the Supreme Leader, who gives a signed order to the elected president. A few days later — in this year’s case, Saturday, August 5 — comes the tahlif, where the president appears in the country’s parliament to take an oath of loyalty to the republic, the country’s official religion and the constitution.

The Islamic Republic is riddled with contradictions. It is a republic founded by an esoteric Sufi who certainly didn’t believe in democracy, as he saw God as the only sovereign and Islamic Sharia as the only legitimate source of legislation. But Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision is not the only one to have given shape to the republic. Iran holds more competitive elections than probably any other state in the modern Middle East. If in Algeria or Baathist Syria, a shadowy, unaccountable clique runs the show behind the scenes, the institutions of the Islamic Republic, many of which are indirectly or directly elected, play very real rules. Yet, in Algeria and many other Middle Eastern states, civil rights are much more observed than in Iran. The toothless Algerian parliament boasts a number of parties, ranging from Trotskyists to Islamists. The more powerful Iranian parliament consists entirely of men (and a few women) of a certain caste who have to be pre-approved by the Guardian Council, a group of 12 men directly or indirectly picked by the Supreme Leader, a man who the Iranian constitution empowers with far-ranging authority. What’s more, the Leader doesn’t only hold a political position, he is supposed to be the “Guardian Jurisprudent” — a position mostly concocted by Khomeini that has more similarities to Plato’s philosopher-king than anything in Islamic precedence.

The republic’s contradiction symbolizes itself best in the perennial conflict between the supposedly divine Supreme Leader and the elected president. An IranWire series chronicles this perpetual conflict over the past 38 years.

Ayatollah Khomeini was clear in how he saw this contradiction. In a speech in 1979, he said: “If a president is not appointed by the jurisprudent, he is illegitimate, just as illegitimate as taqoot.” Taqoot, an oblique word that means something like ungodly, has most commonly been used to refer to the shah’s monarchy. Ayatollah Montazeri, another founding father of the republic, was even clearer: “If everybody in the nation votes for a president but he is not approved by the Guardian Jurisprudent, I wouldn’t consider him legitimate to rule.”

In the years that followed, president after president has tried to assert the power of this elected position. Many of the founding cadre of the Islamic Republic have accepted liberal and democratic principles and have attempted to democratize their theocracy. Chief among them is ex-president Mohammad Khatami, whose support has been key in assuring the popularity of President Rouhani and his two election victories. But Ayatollah Khamenei, who was himself once a president at odds with the Supreme Leader, stands opposed to all such efforts. On his orders, Khatami was not able to attend the inauguration ceremonies.

As much as Khamenei might have once hated the taqoot of the shah, his position is more akin to an undemocratic monarch than anything else. His power is not built on any spirituality or charisma but in amassing wealth and military power in the hands of paramilitias like the Revolutionary Guards. The deference he faces is more akin to that expected by the kings of Jordan and Morocco than any revolutionary (and even he still calls himself that.) The young rebel has become an old sultan — and so the battle for democracy will have to march right through his palace.

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